windows to the soul

My Jewish preschool survived and THRIVED during the COVID-19 pandemic

As the cantor led us all in the shehecheyanu, we collectively recited the words...

When schools on Long Island re-opened in the fall, the list of supplies we needed to operate our early childhood program looked a little different. In addition to construction paper, glue sticks and crayons, supplies for this school year included disposable masks, hand sanitizer and gallons of heavy duty disinfectant. The ceiling filters in our offices and classrooms were upgraded, air purifiers were installed, and I revised and rewrote our school policies multiple times to keep up with ever-changing New York state guidelines for the safe re-opening of schools.  

When I stepped into my role as the new director of the Early Childhood Center at Temple Beth Sholom in Roslyn, I had never met any of my staff. The announcement of my employment for the 2020-2021 school year was made in March of last year, soon after the schools had closed, and parental anxiety was at an all-time high. None of us knew how long the schools would remain closed, and enrollment numbers for the coming year, my first as the director, were down.  

Taking the reins of a preschool amidst a global pandemic was a challenge in itself. The prevailing emotions that could be felt through the phone lines and in the emails I received were twofold: anxiety and fear. Time and again I told parents that the health, safety and wellness of every student and teacher is my number one priority. Because non-essential visitors to childcare programs were prohibited under the new guidance, new pick-up and drop-off procedures needed to be clearly outlined and implemented. Temperature checks and daily health screenings became part of the daily routine. Many days I would log more than 5 miles on my fitness tracker just walking back and forth in my school building, ferrying children from cars to classrooms and in reverse at the end of the school day.  

Despite not feeling 100% comfortable re-opening a preschool in the middle of a global pandemic, I knew that the children needed one another, and my dedicated staff needed to do what they love – to teach. Before the school year began, my “Welcome Back” opening staff meetings were spent carefully reviewing cleaning and hygiene protocols, how to talk to kids about masks, and our expectations were for the school year. None of us knew what this year would hold for us and the children in our care. We painstakingly prepared “To Go” bags for every child in the school, filled with art supplies and activities that parents would be asked to pick up outside the school building in the event that the school needed to be shut down again.

As we began to set up our classrooms, much-loved sensory tables filled with sand and toys were removed, play dough orders canceled, and classroom spaces needed to be reimagined to maximize social distancing. Basic early childhood concepts such as sharing, helping friends, and even high-fives and hugs, were replaced with new rules and a lot of hand-washing. Time outside on the playground was cut short so that the equipment could be sanitized between classes.  

As the updated school policies took hold, and the school remained open for in-person learning, families that had initially chosen not to send their child to preschool this year began making phone calls. My school, Temple Beth Sholom Early Childhood Center in Roslyn Heights, New York, was ready to welcome these children and their families, when they felt ready. I had long discussions with many families about my 9-page Health & Safety Policy that laid out all that we were doing to keep the children and staff safe at school. Within the pages were “what if” scenarios so parents could clearly understand what we required of our parent partners and the steps we would take if there was an exposure to COVID-19 in our school community. This document was updated numerous times throughout the school year as we “lived and learned.” We adapted as needed, and with support from our families and teachers, we endured.  

The most important learning in a preschool, the social and emotional components, happens through the day-to-day interactions of young children and their peers, and not on Zoom. I obsessively tracked Governor Cuomo’s reports on the daily COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. I then cross referenced this information with a second report published daily that monitored cases specifically in Nassau county. If numbers were down, I could breathe a little easier that day. If numbers were up, I said a silent prayer that we would be okay.  

We spent much of the school year reconsidering what we had done in the past for Jewish holidays and celebrations, and adapting them to comply with our strict COVID-19 guidelines. Some of our events, like our much loved Shema Pajama Party, had a daytime “Pajama Day” component in school, and a nighttime Zoom for parents to join their children to say the shema blessing with our rabbi, a bedtime story and some milk and cookies from the comfort and safety of their homes. Our Purim Parade took place in our temple parking lot, with parents looking on from a distance, and our traditional school-wide Passover seder was relegated to individual classroom celebrations.  

Looking back now, one of the benefits of wearing masks all the time is that we saw far fewer colds and flu this year. When a child was marked absent, the teacher would call immediately to check in and also to make sure the absence was not COVID-related. Unfortunately, the list of symptoms associated with COVID-19  can also be associated with the common cold, influenza or seasonal allergies. With every phone call made to check in on a student absence, it was like playing roulette. When the news we received was that it was just a cold, or even ironically a stomach bug, it was considered good news. Anything was better than having to report a case of COVID-19 in our school. I owe a lot of the health and safety of our school this year to the families who remained hyper-vigilant of their children and kept them home at the first sign of any illness. We are mishpacha, family, and we care about and respect one another. It definitely wasn’t easy, but it was worth it.  

Fast forward to Friday, June 11th 2021. Instead of tracking COVID-19 numbers, I found myself obsessively tracking the weather. In order to pull off one more very important date on our school calendar, I needed the weather to cooperate because this year’s Moving Up ceremony, like many of our other school events, was planned for outdoors, once again in the temple parking lot. At the beginning of the week, rain was in the forecast, and I found myself thinking about a Plan B, and even a Plan C. As we’ve done all year, I met with my leadership team and we strategized and talked through “what-ifs” and we watched and we waited. Three different weather apps told us something different, with varying percentages of rain probability. Luckily, by Thursday, those percentages had dropped and our original plan was solidified and confirmed.  

At this year’s Moving Up ceremony, even though it was held outdoors, attendance was limited, and seating was spaced out and separated by class in order to maintain social distancing. Families were reminded to be mindful when removing masks for pictures. The overall feeling in the air was a mixture of emotions – jubilation, relief, gratitude, love and pride. As the pre-kindergarten children made their way out of the school building and into the parking lot, proudly wearing their homemade caps and blue gowns, their faces were pure joy. The smiles and tears beaming from the faces of the parents and families were priceless. A new skill I have learned, and I believe the children have learned during this unprecedented school year, is how to read someone’s emotions through their eyes. Looking at the eyes of my teachers, staff and of the parents, these “windows to the soul” above the masks, I could see the emotions beneath the surface, and feel the warmth and love for everyone in our community. I was verklempt.  As the cantor led us all in the shehecheyanu, we collectively recited the words, feeling the immense gratitude for allowing us to be together in song and celebration: 

Blessed are You Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe who has given us life, sustained us, and allowed us to reach this day. Amen.

Since the start of the school year in September, enrollment numbers have more than doubled. The “To-Go” bags were finally taken down from storage to be dissembled, and we are in a much better place socially and emotionally. While the number of COVID-19 cases in Nassau county continues to decline, childcare programs like ours continue to remain cautious, maintaining the same health and safety policies that have kept the school doors open all year. 

The 2020-2021 school year will be one for the history books. The adopted school motto this year was “We Can Do Hard Things,” borrowed from the recent bestseller. The staff, students and their families at the school did just that – some really hard things. The pre-kindergarten class of 2021 will move up to kindergarten armed with the confidence and ability to face any challenge that comes their way. For myself, I know there is still some work to be done as we regroup and start to think about what school will look like in September 2021. For now, though, I am going to take a walk down the empty hallways of the school, take off my mask and breathe deep. Hard things indeed.

Jen Schiffer has been an educator In Jewish Early Childhood Education for over ten years, teaching in Queens and Long Island. In her role as Director of the Temple Beth Sholom Early Childhood Center in Roslyn Heights, New York, she is passionate about engaging young families in her community by providing meaningful Jewish curriculum  in her early childhood education program